What could lead to Americans considering what they want the suburbs to be

Yesterday, I wrote about competing visions of American suburbs. Under what circumstances might a national conversation, debate, and/or reckoning take place regarding what suburbs should be in the future? Here are a few possibilities:

photo of houses under starry skies

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  1. An election. As noted yesterday, elections can help to bring issues to the forefront. The suburbs are not a key issue in the 2020 presidential election but this does not mean they could not be down the road.
  2. Building concern about housing. The need for cheaper housing in certain metropolitan areas has led to local and state-level debate but this has rarely reached national levels. I am pessimistic about national level discussions about and solutions for housing – but it could happen.
  3. Some sort of crisis or unusual occurrence in suburbia that pushes people to rethink what suburbs are about. Perhaps it is ongoing police violence – like in Ferguson, Missouri – or an usual place like Columbia, Maryland that people want to emulate.
  4. Declining interest in living in suburbs among future generations. Whether millennials and their successors want to or can live in suburbs is up for debate.
  5. A redefinition of the American Dream away from single-family homes, driving, and private spaces to other factors ranging from different kinds of spaces (perhaps more cosmopolitan canopies?) to an inability or declining interest in homeownership compared to securing health care and basic income or a rise in AI, robots, and technology that renders spaces less important than ever.
  6. Black swan events or large changes beyond the control of the average suburbanite. Imagine no more gasoline or a disease that strikes suburbanites at higher rates or a collapse of the global economy rendering the suburban lifestyle difficult. (Because these are black swan events, they are hard or impossible to predict.)

For roughly seventy years, the United States has promoted suburbs on a massive scale (with evidence that a suburban vision has existed for roughly 170 years). With a majority of Americans living in suburbs, it would take work or certain events for a robust conversation to be had and then a wind-down of the suburbs and shift toward other spaces would likely take decades. At the same time, future researchers and pundits might look back to important conversations, events, decisions, or changes that started the United States down a path away from suburbs. Those precipitating factors could occur today, in the near future, somewhere down the road, or never. While the suburbs in the United States have tremendous inertia pushing them into the future, they do not necessarily have to continue.

Attaching McMansions to baby boomers

Are McMansions a a defining feature of baby boomers?

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This year has highlighted America’s generation gaps, especially between the two largest generations. Both have been stereotyped as being self-absorbed — millennials as selfie-obsessed avocado toast addicts, boomers for their oversized “mcmansions” and self-indulgence. And both are feeling pandemic pain, though in different ways.

The piece does acknowledge that this is a stereotype. Yet, some of the stereotypical pieces do go together:

  1. The term “McMansion” arose in the late 1990s and the homes have been in the United States at least two decades. The baby boomers were adults with careers and money when McMansions became a thing. Baby boomers also came of age in the era of consumerism and “greed is good.” They had the money and resources to buy the new big houses. This argument has been made before.
  2. McMansions are known for their tackiness and quest to impress; baby boomers are also stereotyped for their indulgent behavior.
  3. Commentators have suggested baby boomers will have difficulty selling their McMansions. Additionally, baby boomers will try to pass their homes to their children.
  4. If McMansions are often viewed negatively, perhaps it is easier or convenient to attach them to a group – here a generational cohort – that receives its own share of criticism. If McMansions are bad, it can be handy to blame someone for them.

Whether McMansions get passed along to millennials and future generations remains to be seen. But, based on what I have seen, there is a good chance that baby boomers and McMansions may be tied together for decades.

Six suburbs for Generation Z

Homes.com surveyed Generation Z, found their preferences for where they want to live, and then matched those preferences with six suburbs:

In deciding where to buy a first home, each generation has likes and dislikes that reflect its values and priorities. Recently Homes.com surveyed more than 1,000 members of Generation Z to find out more about their home-buying plans, including what kind of neighborhood they prefer.

The survey found preferences centered around four characteristics:

Diversity. More than half prefer neighborhoods and communities that are racially and ethnically diverse;

Accessibility. Three out of four want a location that is accessible to work as well as to friends and family;

Safety. This is a priority when Generation Z-ers evaluate neighborhoods

Affordability. Generation Z is very aware of rising home prices that have kept millions of millennials from becoming homeowner.

And the six suburbs:

-Lilburn, Georgia (outside Atlanta)

-Florin, California (outside Sacramento)

-Shaker Heights, Ohio (outside Cleveland)

-Glendale Heights, Illinois (outside Chicago)

-Valley Stream, New York (outside New York City)

-Stafford, Texas (outside Houston)

Given these four traits and these six suburbs, there is limited representation from some notable big coastal cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Bay Area, Seattle, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Presumably, these metropolitan are too pricey to meet the priority of affordability.

Additionally, it is interesting to not see on the list cultural opportunities or an exciting location. All big cities have hip locations or neighborhoods that might fit the bill or some of this could be rolled into other factors above. Yet, the list also does not include places like Austin and Denver which have a reputation for being cool.

Finally, I do not know the longer histories of these suburbs. Right now, they are quite diverse (at least in comparison to the image of white and wealthy suburbs) but they might not always have been that way and may not have the same composition in the future. If a lot of Generation Z buyers move to these communities, how would they shape the demographics and character of each suburb?

The little development battles happening across American suburbs

A debate over proposed development in Reston, Virginia might be indicative of debates across suburbs:

You may be well versed in this debate. “What you’ve got in Reston, and really everywhere in suburban America, is a demographic shift that’s occurring. The dominant baby-boom generation ages and expires, and the newer, younger generations look different—they have different interests and different incomes and different commuting patterns,” says Patrick Phillips, former CEO of the Urban Land Institute, who has studied Reston. “These sort of little battles”—bike lanes versus parking lots, open spaces versus outdoor shopping malls, high-rises full of two-bedrooms versus fairways framed by cherry trees—“are fractious,” Phillips says, “but they’re inevitable, too.”

The implication here is that younger suburbanites prefer more density and additional transportation options beyond having to own a car. In contrast, older suburbanites want to retain a suburban emphasis on single-family homes and quieter communities. More from Reston:

Since Metro arrived, Hays explained, traffic had become impossible, schools got crowded. As the county forged ahead with its plans, the Yellow Shirts saw each new rendering of an urban promenade or pocket park as a threat to their town’s character. They weren’t unsympathetic to Merchant’s dilemma—they just didn’t believe condos would fix it. (Were those really what a thirtysomething couple with three kids and a goldendoodle would want?) Also, the high-rises were ugly. “Azkaban Prison” and “Moscow Towers,” Hays called them.

Residents who move into a suburban community or neighborhood can become very invested in wanting to maintain the same look and feel that attracted them in the first place. With the interests suburbanites have in maintaining and growing their property values, exclusion of people who might threaten the character or property values, and the benefits of local government, residents can mobilize.

If growth is often seen as good and suburban residents should be able to protect their property rights, which side will give? The battles within communities about development then often turn into residents wanting to protect their vision versus community leaders (and possibly regional leaders) looking forward to positive changes.Some possible outcomes:

  1. Long-term conflict in the community with no changes but plenty of tension.
  2. A decisive showdown with one side winning and the others retreating for a number of years.
  3. A slow set of changes that add up to something over time.
  4. True generational change as a number of older residents leave or pass on and a new generation decides to do something different in the community.

Nostalgia for shopping malls amid decades of critique

Many shopping malls are in dire straits. The potential end of shopping malls can also induce nostalgia and good memories. Add to the decades-long critique of how shopping malls have harmed communities and societies and we have an odd moment: should we celebrate or lament the end of shopping malls?

A few reasons why there is nostalgia:

  1. The shopping mall was a prime social space, let alone a business space, for at least a generation or two. Hanging out at the mall as a teenager was a sign of independence for many and it is glorified by media narratives and images.
  2. The shopping mall is a marker of the past and those growing older can often lament the disappearance of what they knew. Perhaps they did not even like shopping malls or visit them very much but they are a marker for a particular era.
  3. The shopping mall was a significant shift in the shopping experience by providing a collection of chain stores in a single place surrounded by plentiful parking. While we have since moved to big box stores and now to online shopping, the shopping mall transformed retail.

But balance the nostalgia with the critiques:

  1. Shopping malls killed downtowns, from big cities to suburbs to small towns, across the country.
  2. Shopping malls are part of suburban sprawl that wastes resources and land (and contributes to more driving)
  3. They contributed to mass consumption and commercialization. As one quick example: would the commercial celebration of Christmas today be the same without the development of the mall?

How shopping malls end up in the collective memory down the road still remains to be seen. Once the generations that spent so much time in shopping malls is gone, what will their legacy be?

 

“Trophy ranches” may disappear with Baby Boomers

One segment of the luxury property market does not appeal to younger buyers or those who do not understand the appeal of a “trophy ranch”:

Decades ago, a generation of America’s wealthiest, raised on television shows like “Howdy Doody” and “The Lone Ranger,” headed west with dreams of owning some of the country’s most prestigious ranches. Now, as those John Wayne- loving baby boomers age out of the lifestyle or die, they or their children are looking to sell those trophy properties…

Jeff Buerger, a local ranch broker with Hall & Hall in Colorado, said there are more large trophy ranches on the market right now than he can recall in his nearly three decades in the business. There are about 20 ranches priced at over $20 million on the market in the state, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of listings…

Unlike other sectors of the U.S. high-end real-estate market, ranches can’t fall back on international purchasers. Broker Tim Murphy said there is virtually no demand for ranches from international buyers, many of whom “don’t get it.”…

“The last wave of buyers was the baby boomers who fell in love with John Wayne and wanted that experience for themselves,” Mr. Buerger said. “Today, it’s more about conservation. You’re starting to hear more landowners talking about wildlife habitat enhancement and ecological work.” Other targeted groups include wealthy families from the East Coast or Silicon Valley.

I would guess this is not just about baby boomers: it is about broader conceptions of what is the ideal property if someone came into significant money. The implication in the story above is that media, particularly John Wayne films, created a desire for these locations. Presumably, other media depictions would fuel desires for other properties. Depending on the tastes and background of buyers, this could range from:

1. Pricey downtown condos or penthouses in the middle of urban action (whether in well-established wealthy neighborhoods or in up-and-coming places).

2. Suburban McMansions that offer a lot of space and unique architecture.

3. Traditional mansions with sprawling homes whose size and design imply old money (in contrast to the flashy yet flawed McMansions).

4. Impressive vacation homes right on desirable beaches.

Perhaps the trick of any of these is to try to ensure that there are future buyers for your property. If demand drops, your hot high-status property may not hold up as a desirable location for the long-term.

Housing as the ultimate marker of poorly functioning (free) markets

Alexis Madrigal considers generational access to housing and the high real estate prices in some markets:

There are obviously many reasons that coastal housing markets have gone so bonkers. But it is an ironic twist that residential property, which once served as the bedrock for American capitalism, has become the most obvious sign for young people that something is deeply wrong with the markets.

What exactly has gone “deeply wrong” with these housing markets? Madrigal lays out a number of factors. But, I wonder if we could extend the analysis a bit further from “housing markets” to “economic markets” more broadly. Here is what two opposing sides might say:

One side: these housing markets with high prices have never truly been free. For decades, federal policy has privileged single-family homes. Local policies have made particular choices, often toward protecting property values and limiting density. Open up these markets to true competition. If affordable housing is needed, limit regulations and let all the money of potential buyers drive new development.

The other side: housing markets have not been regulated enough. The federal and local policies have tended to privilege certain actors – like the white middle-class and connected developers – over the needs of many working-class and poor residents as well as non-white residents. Policies aimed at providing more housing for all need more teeth and the ability to compel protected wealthier residents to accept development near their own homes.

As a sociologist who has studied this for over a decade, I tend to side with the latter argument: (1) markets are rarely ever completely and free and (2) the scales have been tipped toward whiter and wealthier residents for a long time. Perhaps the true lesson of these high-priced housing markets is that calls for regulation and oversight only go so far when property values and who neighbors are is truly at stake.

Downsizing, Marie Kondo, and all the stuff Americans own

Many older Americans want to downsize (and cash out on their homes), Marie Kondo’s approach is popular, but where will all that stuff owned by older homeowners go?

Auctioneers and appraisers, junk haulers and moving companies all seem to be echoing the same thing: The market is flooded with baby boomer rejects. And they cite a number of reasons our kids are turning down the possessions we so generously offer to them. They rent rather than own, live in smaller spaces, collect more digital than physical items and tend to put their money toward experiences rather than things…

Her kids also rejected three sets of formal dinnerware, including Haviland China; vast collections of Lladro figurines and Department 56 Christmas villages; as well as 3,000 Beanie Babies and boxes of soccer awards she and her husband, who both coached for many years, earned with their children.

The only offer she got on any of her treasures? One son wants her Hallmark Frosty Friends ornaments she’s collected over 37 years “because he knows how much they are worth.”

Two scenarios could develop:

1. There will be a growing market in stuff that older Americans no longer want. Perhaps many millennials or Gen Z do not want stuff from their parents but some other American will want it. It does not just have to go to resale shops; enterprising individuals and firms could shop all these items online to find buyers interested in particular niches. Perhaps this could even expand to international markets and be shipped in bulk around the globe.

2. Much of the stuff will simply be thrown away, particularly items that are more sentimental in nature. Some lucky owners will find people to take or buy their unneeded items but much of the rest will simply find its way into landfills. Decades of consumption will end in the garbage can.

I have not seen any estimates either way of how much money all of these goods could generate or how much waste could be involved (or a combination of both).

Also, consider the implications of such a change: younger generations do not take material objects from their parents and grandparents, creating a bit of a gap in a material timeline. Perhaps the shifting of wealth from generation to generation more often takes the form of helping to pay for housing or student loans rather than tangible goods. How does this change memories and collective understandings of the past?

 

Will millennials kill McMansions?

Millennials get blamed for a lot of things and here is another possible area where their choices may have consequences: the selling and buying of McMansions.

The end of so-called “McMansions” has been predicted several times over the years, but those large, mass-produced houses that the baby boomer generation (born 1946-1964) favored as a status symbol kept coming back. Now, baby boomers are entering their 70s and 80s and many are looking to downsize, but they are finding it hard to offload these large homes, facing a paucity of buyers among the millennial generation (born 1982-2000), who are unable to pay the prices they want.

For anxious sellers, however, respite could be around the corner as mortgage interest rates ease, and the millennial generation becomes qualified for more and bigger loans, experts say…

A big problem for the McMansion market is the mismatch between where millennials prefer to live and where those large houses have been built. The younger generation gravitates to cities – where their jobs are — whereas baby boomers have built their homes in suburban locations…

Keys wondered if the housing preferences of the younger generation have truly changed or if there is only a “delay” in the demand for McMansions. Those homes may not be desirable to people in their late 20s but instead to people in their late 30s or 40s, he noted.

This is not the first time I have seen the suggestion that millennials have less interest in McMansions: Builder had a piece on this a few years back. And the baby boomers may have a problem bigger than just McMansions: who will buy all their homes, McMansions and otherwise? When housing becomes a primary investment for so many Americans, not having enough future buyers can become problematic.

More broadly, this discussion follows a typical pattern for stories and studies about millennials: will they act like previous generations (and have not done so thus far for a variety of reasons including an economic crisis and student loan debt) or do they truly have different tastes and want to lead different lives? In the realm of those who care about cities and suburbs, this is an ongoing discussion spanning years: will millennials be suburbanites or city-dwellers? Will they reject lives built around single-family homes and driving and prefer denser, diverse, culturally-rich communities (or a mix of both in “surban” places)?

If I had to guess, this group will exhibit some change from previous groups but probably not drastic change (based on the idea that social change tends to happen more slowly over time). Reversing suburban culture, ingrained among many American institutions and residents, would like take decades and not just one generation. The McMansions of older residents may not all sell at their preferred prices but barring another housing bubble (which could happen), they will be worth some money.

“McMansions are the largest physical boomer legacy soon inherited by their children”

A Connecticut architect considers the McMansion legacy left by a generation of homeowners and builders:

Skyscrapers are the image of New York. The White House is more America than a home. And McMansions have become a punchline. When I sought to find land in 1982, a broker pushed a building lot in a McMansion development, pushing its allure by flatly asserting, “We’re talking about some seriously beautiful homes here.”…

Time has not been kind to we boomers. We basically tanked the entire world’s economy with “irrational exuberance” that found its most publicly grotesque distortion in those McMansions. Make no mistake millions of less-than-McMansions had more distortional impact on the credit markets than the hundreds of thousands of McMansion, let alone the one-off attempts by individuals who try to buy social legitimacy by building large homes — the real mansions…

McMansions are the largest physical boomer legacy soon inherited by their children, the millennials, who have had the worst economic birthing since the Great Depression. Kate Wagner was barely in her 20s when she called out the final fruits of 40 years of serial housing booms that afflicted America. But the impact of in-your-face domestic chest-beating is especially present in Connecticut, which realtor.com trumpeted as having the “metro” with the third most McMansions in the country. And that impact was doubled down by the added insult of unending instant “tear-downs” of those homes built in the previous generation in the tight Northeast.

As an architect I have remade any number of these instantly dated ego vehicles. We have also revived any number of raised ranches, garrison colonials and Capes. Often those homes need strategic expansion. But with McMansions, removal of the offending detail and pretense is often the first remediation.

I like the idea that a social group – here the emphasis is on Baby Boomers – can leave a physical legacy for later members of the same society. People do not just pass down values, norms, and behaviors; they also leave a physical landscape and places that they have made and shaped. Even though we do not focus much on this in the United States, these places shape us and also provide inertia for what future residents will experience. McMansions have the potential to influence millions of lives even as the original designers, builders, and residents may no longer be present.

At the same time, I wonder how obvious the excesses of the McMansion were while they were being constructed in large numbers. It is relatively easy today to look at them with disdain or wonder at what prompted them. A blog like McMansion Hell has the benefits of hindsight as well as new eyes from a younger resident from a different generation. Did this architect call out McMansions back in the 1990s when wealthy Connecticut communities built them in large numbers? My own research suggests the tide starts to turn against McMansions in the early to mid 2000s as consistent critiques of their architecture and consumption arise as well as there are enough of them in communities across the United States to see them as a single phenomenon.

Going forward, I don’t think McMansions will disappear. There is plenty of money to be made in McMansions compared to building smaller housing units. It is not clear that all millennials or future homebuyers will see them as homes to be avoided. And many of the McMansions critics say are poorly built and designed will last for decades.